The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on November 5, 2013, during a conference entitled “Dodd-Frank: A Law Like No Other,” co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig Von Mises Lecture Series.
Why is it important at this point to examine the causes of the crisis? After all, it was five years ago, and Congress and financial regulators have acted, or are acting, to prevent a recurrence. Even if we can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the crisis, some will argue that the new regulations now being put in place under Dodd- Frank will make a repetition unlikely. Perhaps. But these new regulations have almost certainly slowed economic growth and the recovery from the post-crisis recession, and they will continue to do so in the future. If regulations this pervasive were really necessary to prevent a recurrence of the financial crisis, then we might be facing a legitimate trade-off in which we are obliged to sacrifice economic freedom and growth for the sake of financial stability. But if the crisis did not stem from a lack of regulation, we have needlessly restricted what most Americans want for themselves and their children.
It is not at all clear that what happened in 2008 was the result of insufficient regulation or an economic system that is inherently unstable. On the contrary, there is compelling evidence that the financial crisis was the result of the government’s own housing policies. These in turn, as we will see, were based on an idea—still popular on the political left—that underwriting standards in housing finance are discriminatory and unnecessary. In today’s vernacular, it’s called “opening the credit box.” These policies, as I will describe them, were what caused the insolvency of the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and ultimately the financial crisis. They are driven ideologically by the left, but the political muscle in Washington is supplied by what we should call the Government Mortgage Complex—the realtors, the homebuilders, and the banks—for whom freely available government-backed mortgage money is a source of great profit.
The Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, established in 1934, was authorized to insure mortgages up to 100 percent, but it required a 20 percent down payment and operated with very few delinquencies for 25 years. However, in the serious recession of 1957, Congress loosened these standards to stimulate the growth of housing, moving down payments to three percent between 1957 and 1961. Predictably, this resulted in a boom in FHA insured mortgages and a bust in the late ,60s. The pattern keeps recurring, and no one seems to remember the earlier mistakes. We loosen mortgage standards, there’s a bubble, and then there’s a crash. Other than the taxpayers, who have to cover the government’s losses, most of the people who are hurt are those who bought in the bubble years, and found—when the bubble deflated—that they couldn’t afford their homes.
Exactly this happened in the period leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, again as a result of the government’s housing policies. Only this time, as I’ll describe, the government’s policies were so pervasive and were pursued with such vigor by two administrations that they caused a financial crisis as well as the usual cyclical housing market collapse.